Fresh off its smashing success with “Heathers: The Musical,” UC Berkeley’s BareStage faces a welcome but difficult challenge — outdoing itself.
BareStage is no stranger to churning out fresh, dynamic theater productions. The primarily student-run organization — which depends upon college-age writers, musicians and set designers, as well as actors and directors — has existed since 1994. Each season, BareStage performs four full-length shows, two of which take place in the fall.
BareStage will begin its season with a play — Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” a 1982 comedy celebrating the humorous situations that can arise when one puts on a stage production. Following “Noises Off” will be the satirical rock musical “Bat Boy: The Musical,” which features music and lyrics from Laurence O’Keefe of “Heathers: The Musical” and “Legally Blonde: The Musical” fame. The directors of both productions promise not only to bring their own creative flairs to the projects, but to offer new interpretations on the shows’ respective thematic elements in a way that only BareStage can.
“Noises Off” has a fairly complicated structure — it is based in a play-within-a-play titled “Nothing On,” and the narrative of “Noises Off” follows this play through the various stages of its development. In between performances of “Nothing On,” the audience gets glimpses into the backstage world of the cast and crew involved, in what is both a farcical slapstick and a loving tribute to the world of theater.
More than anything, the show’s director Natasha Munasinghe is excited to tackle a show as technically demanding as “Noises Off” in a space as small as BareStage’s theater. The show traditionally requires a fully rotating stage — to shift between the play-within-a-play and the backstage shenanigans — that will undoubtedly be challenging to incorporate, but Munasinghe is confident that BareStage will exceed any skeptical audience member’s expectations.
“The set designers and costume designers and lighting designers use what we have and manipulate our space so that we can have a house as a set, and it will turn, and we’ll see the backstage and how that looks. The fact that we’re going to do that in the space that we have is, in my opinion, pretty remarkable,” Munasinghe said.
The excitement surrounding the show is not limited to its technical feats — according to Munasinghe, the choice to produce the show itself is a unique undertaking.
“It’s just so different from the other shows that are put on at UC Berkeley — it was written in the 80s, it’s a very classic comedy, which is so rarely done,” said Munasinghe.
When it comes to auditioning for the production, Munasinghe encourages anyone who might be interested to seriously consider going for it. Part of the comedy of “Noises Off” is born of the inevitable conflict between dramatically different characters, so there is, it seems, a role for everyone.
Later in the season, “Bat Boy” follows the story of a half-bat, half-boy creature trying to assimilate into human life. He faces societal rejection and prejudice at every time in his bids for a human connection. It’s a story of freedom, intolerance, romance and denial — all set to a rock-fueled score.
“I find it so beautiful when casts and directors and production teams take something like ‘Bat Boy’ and add meaning to it,” the show’s director Teddy Lake said. “It’s all commentary about the way the people in the ruling class of people in power treat people they see as less-than. And in this case, the less-than is Bat Boy.”
The plot may sound entirely absurd — and, almost objectively, it is. But there is a grain of truth that exists within the story of the misbegotten bat-child, one that, Lake argues, is more relevant today at UC Berkeley than ever.
“Sometimes we’re on a high horse here, like we’ve done all we can to make society more accommodating to people who are historically oppressed,” Lake said. “The work is not done, and ‘Bat Boy’ communicates that.”
Most productions of “Bat Boy,” according to Lake, fail to truly draw these thematic elements out of the work, instead leaning heavily into the satire of the piece. She hopes that BareStage is able to transform “Bat Boy” in this way — playing the story truthfully, and constantly pushing both the performers and the audience to wrestle with the wrongful acts committed against the Bat Boy, no matter how funny they might seem.
“I’ve noticed that from what I’ve seen on ‘Bat Boy’ media that everyone does it as a surface-level show — it’s campy when you don’t dig into it,” Lake explained. “We’re bringing as much truth to this nonsensical satire as possible. I want the audience to feel like this could happen today.”
Lake was less concerned with the semantics of her auditionees — certainly, she needs capable actors, singers and dancers, but she places a special emphasis on professionalism, commitment and passion for theater.
A play or a musical may build its charm off the necessary fourth wall or degree of detachment from problems of the real world, but it does not exist independently from the way the audience experiences it. That is, a director is encouraged — perhaps even obligated — to find ways to transform and adapt the medium. This is where BareStage best excels: it taps into the creative energy within dozens of young artists, all of whom bring the challenges they face in their daily lives to the stage, to the ultimate benefit of the production.
Auditions and callbacks for “Noises Off” will take place Sept. 1-3. For “Bat Boy,” auditions and callbacks will be held Sept. 8-10 (Sept. 9-10 for pit orchestra auditions).
Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].